FOXBOROUGH — Anyone who has followed the Patriots over the last two decades knows one immutable truth:
Tom Brady is going to play on Sunday. Tom Brady always plays on Sunday, even when he’s injured.
The Patriots certainly know it.
“He’s a guy that I think, across the locker room, none of us ever worry about him being ready for a football game,” safety Devin McCourty said on Thursday.
Even Governor Charlie Baker knows it.
“Tom Brady is going to play,” Baker said at the end of a media briefing on Thursday. “I don’t make a lot of predictions, but on that one, Tom Brady’s going to play. Personal guarantee.”
But the issue isn’t whether Brady plays on Sunday against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. This time, there is legitimate worry that Brady won’t be himself, thanks to a freak hand injury suffered in Wednesday’s practice.
Sources told the Globe that Brady jammed his right hand and suffered a cut on a handoff drill. The severity of the injury is unknown, but it is bad enough that it forced Brady to miss Thursday’s practice, and forced him to cancel his scheduled news conference for the second straight day. He is scheduled to speak to the media on Friday, but that can always change.
Brady actually was present at the start of Thursday’s practice. He wore his full uniform, wore a glove on his right hand (which he never does), and stretched with his teammates.
But that was the extent of his participation. Brady did not practice, and was listed as such on the team’s official practice report. Brian Hoyer was the only quarterback who practiced.
The extent of the injury is still a mystery, as is common in Foxborough. Orthopedic surgeons across the country surmised that Brady is dealing with a dislocated finger, though the exact finger isn’t known.
The team isn’t saying anything. Brady was nowhere to be found during media interviews on Thursday, and coach Bill Belichick did not have a scheduled news conference.
How did Brady look on Thursday?
“He’s handsome,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said.
Did Brady throw any passes?
“I am worried about what I am doing. You can ask him how it went,” center David Andrews said.
Who was Brady handing the ball off to when he collided and injured his hand?
“The world may never know,” running back James White said.
Is there a chance Hoyer could play on Sunday?
“I prepare every week like I’m going to play,” Hoyer said.
OK, so the players weren’t going to give it up.
But their non-answers didn’t soothe Patriots fans, who were sent into a panic around lunchtime when photos taken of Brady during warm-ups circulated on social media.
Brady’s right thumb looked boxy, and bigger than usual underneath the glove. Was he wearing some sort of brace?
The reality of the situation started to settle in: Did Brady really injure his thumb on his throwing hand, four days before the AFC Championship game?
That’s the worst finger for a quarterback to injure. If it’s the pinkie or ring finger, Brady can tape it up deal with it. But the thumb . . .
“The thumb is everything on the hand,” former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak said. “No thumb, no grip, no control.”
That’s not what Patriots fans want to hear. Not with their team getting ready to face the league’s No. 1 pass defense, and a Jaguars front four that has battered so many quarterbacks that it nicknamed itself “Sacksonville.”
Playing through pain has been a hallmark of Brady’s career. Outside of the 2008 season, which he missed with a torn ACL suffered in the opener, Brady has never missed a game because of injury.
And no question, he has been injured.
In the 2013 preseason, teammate Nate Solder rolled into Brady’s left leg (the same one that was injured in 2008), and Brady left practice with a knee scare. Two days later, Brady completed his first 11 passes in an exhibition game against Tampa Bay.
In 2013, Brady led the Patriots to victory over the Dolphins with a swollen hand. In 2014, Brady played through a “significant” ankle injury in Buffalo, throwing for 361 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win.
And this year, Brady dealt with an Achilles’ injury over the second half of the regular season, but the Patriots still rolled to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Brady earned perhaps the highest praise possible from Belichick in October.
“Tom’s as physically and mentally tough as any player I’ve coached,” Belichick said. “No doubt about that.”
Brady always toughs it out, and he’ll tough it out this Sunday. But toughing it out doesn’t always yield the most positive results.
There was the Super Bowl in February 2008, when the Patriots were gunning for a 19-0 season. Brady set off a panic when he was seen wearing a protective boot on an injured ankle a week before the game.
Brady played against the Giants. He even threw for 266 yards and a touchdown. But his completion percentage was down (60.4), he was sacked five times, and, you know the rest.
Publicly, the Patriots aren’t worried about Brady’s availability for Sunday’s game.
“The team always knows Tom’s doing a ton of things to make sure he’s always prepared and ready to be out there on the field,” McCourty said.
But Thursday’s absence created doubt whether Brady will be himself on Sunday, in the Patriots’ most important game of the season.